Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

On November 8, 1926, Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist and fierce antibourgeois, anti-Fascist journalist and deputy, was arrested by Benito Mussolini’s police and deported to the tiny island of Ustica. His sentence was twenty years. Until his release from incarceration on April 21, 1937, six days before his death, he was variously confined at Turi near Bari, at Formia, and at Milan, until his return to his native Sardinia. A small man physically, with a deformity that gave him the appearance of a humpbacked dwarf, he suffered from tuberculosis and arteriosclerosis. Despite these infirmities and under the eyes of his Fascist jailers, he wrote 219 letters (published in 1947) to his wife and a handful of other family members. Most important, he managed to produce roughly twenty-eight hundred pages of social analysis, philosophy, and political prophecy that constitute his Prison Notebooks, containing his singular commentaries and reflections. Gramsci’s covert writings were essential to his psychic survival: He had a fierce determination to be heard.

The substance of the notebooks was not developed sequentially. Gramsci was a thinker working under immense pressure and stress. Consequently, portions of an essay would be written at one time; months or years later it would be amended and appended.

The notebooks consist of a sequence of essays—a series of reflections. They are Marxist, but Sardinian rather than German or Russian....

(The entire section is 533 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In 1924, Antonio Gramsci was elected as a Communist deputy in the Italian Parliament. Despite enjoying parliamentary immunity, he was arrested on November 8, 1926, under orders of the Fascist head of state, Benito Mussolini. Convicted of political subversion after a perfunctory trial, Gramsci was incarcerated until a few days before he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage that caused his death on April 27, 1937.

In January, 1929, Gramsci gained permission to write in his cell. He used large, lined exercise books to chronicle his observations about historical events and his readings. Over the next six years, Gramsci wrote almost three thousand pages, which eventually became the Prison Notebooks.

Each page Gramsci wrote was subject to censorship by the prison warden. Thus, Gramsci’s task was to advance a program to energize socially disenfranchised people while evading the gaze of prison censors. His writings were not detached searches for abstract truths but contributions to concrete political struggle.

After World War II, Gramsci’s literary executors published selections of the Prison Notebooks organized around themes such as “The Risorgimento” and “Literature and the National Life.” Numerous other editions of selections followed. It was not until 1975, however, that the Prison Notebooks were published, under the editorship of Valentino Gerratana, in their entirety and in...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Ideological Hegemony

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Gramsci aspired to loosen Marxism’s scientific and material inclinations and reinstate the importance of cultural and ideological change. He was inspired by Marxism’s democratic impulses and by the need to translate ideas into political action. Earlier Marxist thinkers insisted that the working class was an inherently revolutionary force, that capitalism’s collapse was inevitable, and that the manner of collapse was predictable. Gramsci rejected these convictions. Instead, he believed that liberal-capitalist regimes were able to transform and reproduce themselves despite their persistent economic contradictions. They did this, according to Gramsci, by establishing ideological hegemony.

An ideological hegemony consists of values, cultural attitudes, beliefs, social norms, and legal structures that thoroughly saturate civil society. Whereas earlier Marxist theorists stressed the role of the state and the way economic forces molded dominant ideas, Gramsci emphasized the active role ideas play in class struggle and denied that a single cause, such as economics, could explain all social development.

Major social institutions—the state, legal systems, schools, workplaces, churches, families, media—transmit the dominant ideas and the practices they support. A nation’s popular consciousness is thus transformed. The most solid ideological hegemonies receive general acceptance and come to be viewed as natural, appropriate, perhaps even inevitable. In this manner, the ruling ideas become so deeply embedded in social relations that they are internalized by citizens as common sense. An ideological hegemony conceals the sources of its ideas and practices—particular power relations and specific historical circumstances—and presents itself as ahistorical truth.

Social Change and Revolution

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

For Gramsci, the state mobilizes both force and consent. As a forum of ideological and political dispute and a major medium through which the dominant classes lure popular consent, the state plays a major role in solidifying ideological hegemony. However, instead of relying mainly on the dominant Marxist analyses of economic base-ideological superstructure and state power, Gramsci introduces the notions of historical bloc and ensemble of relations. A historical bloc is formed by popular groups built around a common ideology that challenges the dominant set of ideas. Economic, social, and ideological forces combine to change social conditions. Social forces intrude on existing class domination, and coalitions are formed to shift the ensemble of relations, the totality of social relations in historical context, to a new social order. Although he did not ignore the important role of economics in social change, Gramsci refused to view all cultural and ideological reality as caused only by economic factors.

Gramsci contrasted passive revolution with popular political struggle. Conducted mainly through state agency, passive revolutions respond to perceived crisis by changing the economic structure from above. In contrast, popular political struggle requires the active participation of the masses. Popular political struggle requires a crisis of authority. Revolution must undermine the spiritual power of the ruling classes by penetrating the...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Organic Intellectuals

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Gramsci viewed traditional intellectuals such as writers, artists, philosophers, and the clergy as an independent social class typically divorced from social action. He emphasized how all human action is inherently political and how all reflective humans are intellectuals. He viewed working-class intellectualism as part of everyday life. Gramsci was convinced that there exists a general historical process that tends continually to unify the entire human race. Once he combined his inclusive vision of politics, his conviction that history tended to extend high culture, and his belief that all human action is political, his notion of organic intellectuals followed. The underclasses must generate their own intellectual base, revolutionary consciousness, and political theories from self-activity. The solution to lagging revolutionary consciousness among workers is not a vanguard elite who seek to impose a rebellious spirit externally. Nor is the solution blind insistence that communist revolution is inevitable and working-class consciousness will arise on cue at the appropriate historical moment. The solution is for workers to become revolutionaries through activity in the workplace, in the home, and in civil life generally. Decades before contemporary feminism, Gramsci insisted that the personal is political. Again, Gramsci highlights the importance of extending democracy through ideas that translate to social activity. The revolutionary party must be a mass party rooted in everyday existence. It must be an agent of social change that coordinates historical forces already in motion. Most important, it cannot be a force of external imposition if it is to prefigure a classless, radically democratic social order.

An Alternative to Marxism

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Gramsci presents a clear alternative to the historical materialism of Karl Marx, the vanguardism and state centralism of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the spontaneity theory of Rosa Luxemburg, and the social democracy of Eduard Bernstein. He underscored the democratic impulses in Marxism: the need for workers to nurture and express their own critical consciousness; the importance of liberating oneself from the constraints of false necessities; the practical advantage of viewing revolution as a series of human, active political events; and the role of consent in both sustaining and unsettling dominant political arrangements. Gramsci distanced himself from the scientism of Marxism. His historical bloc and ensemble of relations analysis alters the economic base and ideological superstructure model; he did not believe in the historical inevitability or clear predictability of communist revolution; and he viewed history as indeterminate.

Perhaps more than any other Marxist thinker, Gramsci understood that political ends are prefigured in the means used to achieve them. If the goal is a classless, sharply democratic society that absorbs the functions of the modern state, then revolutionary activity must itself assume that form. Rather than advancing a universal model of communism, as did Joseph Stalin, Gramsci counseled popular movements that paid careful attention to existing national character and differences in historical circumstances. Because he understood theoretical activity as a changing, dialectical part of mass struggle, he was sensitive to novel ideas, ambiguity, unevenness, and indeterminacy. His own work reflects little dogmatism and a robust sense of the inherent contestability of political strategies and ideas.

Gramsci has had great influence, particularly in Italy, among leftist thinkers who are suspicious of the scientism of early Marxism, the tyrannical excesses of the Soviet model of communism, and the doctrinal posture of Communist parties generally. Perhaps it is not merely a coincidence that for decades Communists in Italy, inspired largely by Gramsci, have gained consistent political influence through parliamentary means. A dispute will remain, however, whether this shows that political activity inspired by Gramsci’s work is easily coopted by liberal-capitalist regimes or whether we are witnessing the building of a counterhegemonic force capable of eventually unsettling the dominant ensemble of relations in Europe.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Additional Reading

Adamson, Walter L. Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Traces the formation of Gramsci’s thought within the context of Western Marxism and the political and intellectual horizons of his time.

Bellamy, Richard, and Darrow Schecter. Gramsci and the Italian State. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1993. Emphasizes the political ramifications of Gramsci’s writings, focusing on the specific historical context of Gramsci’s role in contemporary political debates in Italy. Includes...

(The entire section is 401 words.)